Democrats look to boost campaign staff diversity ahead of midterms

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When Irene Lin attended a training program for campaign managers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2016, she quickly realized that she stood out. 

“I was the only woman of color there,” Lin recalled in a recent interview. “It was 80 percent white guys.”

Five years later, Lin is still managing campaigns, now for Democrat Tom Nelson’s bid for Senate in Wisconsin. But while she has moved up from the House to a potentially marquee Senate battleground race, she says her party has a long way to go to bolster diversity among campaign staff.

Ensuring campaign staff and consultants are from a mix of races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities has been a persistent problem for a party that relies on a diverse coalition of voters to win elections, some two dozen Democratic campaign operatives said in interviews. The dearth of diverse campaign staffers also affects Capitol Hill since operatives often transition to a lawmaker’s office after a successful campaign.

Democrats are particularly concerned about a lack of staff diversity ahead of the midterms next year, when they will be defending razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate. 

Dan Sena, who became the first Latino DCCC executive director in 2018, noted that Democrats won the House that year thanks to a diverse group of voters. 

“If the party is intent on keeping that coalition … you have to have operatives who can talk to everybody in that coalition, who also happen to be people of color,” he said. 

Barriers persist

Demographic data of campaign staffers is difficult to find since campaigns operate independently. Chuck Rocha, who was a senior adviser to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and recently launched the firm BlackBrown Partners, did his own survey of 50 competitive House, Senate and governor’s races in 2020. 

He found just one person of color managing a House race and another managing a Senate race. Some Democrats said the presidential race, with two dozen candidates at one point, resulted in a smaller pool of potential staffers and consultants being available for down-ballot contests. And the makeup of the staff who were put in charge affected campaign strategy, multiple Democrats said.

“In every campaign I’ve ever worked in, there’s a meeting that happens that determines what money will be spent, where and on what voters,” Rocha said. “And in my 30-year career, there’s just never been a Latino or a Black or brown person in that room to advocate, to make sure that the resources are spent early and often enough on our community.”

In other words, critical political dynamics could be missed without a diverse staff. 

Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ campaign arm, BOLD PAC, said that when he worked as a political consultant, he faced pushback when he suggested focusing on Latino voters. 

“A lot of my colleagues thought that I was saying that because I was Latino,” Gallego recalled. “No, I was saying it because that’s how you win elections in Arizona.”

“It made me have to play games with a lot of my consulting contracts, where I would get one of the white consultants to say things about the Latino vote first, so that way it wasn’t automatically dismissed,” he added.

Gallego and other Democrats said the party committees, particularly the DCCC, are working to address this issue. But they also said the party still needs to address fundamental problems with recruiting and hiring, such as low-paid or unpaid entry-level positions and unstable employment between campaigns. 

“As someone that comes from a working-class background, my parents until this day didn’t understand … why a person that is one of the few college grads in our family actually wanted to take on this profession where he was unemployed for four to five months every year,” said Justin Myers, a DCCC alum who now runs Blue Leadership Collaborative, which trains women and people of color to be campaign managers. 

While some Democrats said the party needs to expand the pool of qualified campaign staffers, others argued that pool already exists. 

“The problem’s not a pipeline, the problem is a doorbell,” said Steve Phillips, a Democrat who helped found Inclusv, a résumé bank for people of color who work in politics. “There’s an abundance of talent. There’s not an abundance of commitment to hire that talent.” 

Phillips and others pointed to an insular political network and behind-the-scenes hiring practices, which prevent new and diverse staffers from breaking through.

“We tend to surround ourselves with the people we know, we trust,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. “All too often, they look like us.”

In short, the persistent barriers boil down to structural racism, Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said. 

“People don’t necessarily think of African Americans as being able to manage operations of a broader electorate,” he said. 

Committee efforts

The Democratic campaign committees are working to address this issue, starting with their own staff. At this point in 2019, 38 percent of the DCCC’s staff identified as a person of color. Currently, 54 percent identify as indigenous or a person of color, according to figures provided by the committee.

Both the DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have elevated people of color to top positions. Tasha Cole is the DCCC’s deputy executive director and chief diversity officer, after leading the committee’s diversity efforts in 2020. Missayr Boker is the first Black woman running the DCCC’s independent expenditure arm, which spent $91 million on campaigns around the country in the 2020 cycle.

In January, the DCCC held a Zoom call with its new chairman, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the first openly gay person elected to lead the committee, and a few dozen consultants of color. They discussed efforts to connect the DCCC to more diverse consultants as well as efforts to diversify staff, according to four people on the call.  

The DCCC also requires potential vendors to report their staff diversity, and it spent nearly $30 million with firms led or owned by people of color in 2020, according to the committee.  

At the DSCC, Jessica Knight Henry was promoted to deputy executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, a new position this cycle, after serving as the committee’s political director in 2020. She also previously ran the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. 

Multiple Democratic operatives said the DSCC still has more work to do. Simmons said the DSCC is “a hard nut to crack” in part because there are fewer senators of color applying pressure on the committee, compared to the House, which is more diverse. Members of the CBC in particular raised concerns about DCCC staff in 2020, which led to multiple resignations and the search for a new executive director.

“Those concerns [about diversity] are always going to be there,” said Yolonda Addison, executive director of the CBC PAC, but she said both party committees were addressing the issue. 

Outside efforts continue 

Quentin James, the founder and president of The Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, said the party committees aren’t built for long-term diversity efforts because of the constant turnover. So the Collective PAC launched Black Campaign School, which has trained 1,500 Black candidates and staff since 2017. 

It’s just one example of campaign operatives taking diversity matters into their own hands. 

In July, Democratic consultant Neal Carter became frustrated with the persistent conversations among Black consultants who found themselves without work in the middle of an election cycle. So he launched a channel called “Black Consultant Group” on the workplace chat service Slack, which has grown to nearly 200 consultants and is a place to network, collaborate and vent.

Left Hook, a Democratic media and strategy firm, launched a new paid fellowship program this week for college students, while also disclosing plans to help progressive groups with diversity, equity and inclusion programs. 

EMILY’s List, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, increased its intern stipend to $1,200 per month and last summer worked with a consulting firm to conduct a DEI analysis of its own staff. The group has also posted salary information on job postings and prioritized working with firms led by women and people of color.

Other organizations, such as the Blue Leadership Collaborative and the National Democratic Training Committee, are training staff. BLC helps fund campaign managers’ salaries, and its participants are managing legislative races in 2021 with the goal of managing campaigns in 2022. 

Rebecca Pearcey, a veteran Democratic operative who served as political director for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, is mentoring four managers in BLC’s program. 

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Pearcey said. “We still need to do better.”

Pearcey and other Democrats said the crowded presidential primary field has helped build a pipeline of experienced, diverse staff. 

Boker, the DCCC’s independent expenditure director, came to the committee in 2020 after working on Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. 

“You have a lot of people of color who, across all of these campaigns, were running programs, managing teams,” Boker said. “It increases the pool of people who now have the requisite experience to go manage a congressional campaign.”

Multiple Democrats pointed to Boker’s control of a massive ad budget as a sign that the situation was improving. 

“You have to be in a place where you’re empowered to be able to spend money,” Sena said, while also adding that the party has “a long way to go” before diverse operatives are seen as effective at winning over all voters, not just those from their own race or ethnicity.

Some were still cautious about Democratic campaigns continuing to diversify their ranks. 

“I feel more optimistic about it than I ever have,” Rocha said. “But I’m used to being disappointed.” 

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